This winter has proved an exciting season for Hong Kong’s birders—including for a visit by two Oriental Storks (Ciconia boyciana)! The species is spotted in Hong Kong once in a few years—and only because they are disoriented, losing their way after accidentally departing from the migrating flock.
Oriental Stork is a large waterbird of the stork family, Ciconiidae, reaching 1.3 metres in height, and with a wingspan of 2 metres. Storks live by waterways. Oriental Stork favours freshwater wetlands such as paddy fields and shallow riverbanks. They feed on small animals like fish, frogs and snakes; and build their huge nests on pine trees.
Oriental Stork looks elegant and beautiful with its snowy white feather and dark hindwings, along with slender legs. The migratory birds spend their summertime in northeastern China and nearby Russian for breeding, and head southwards to Korea, Japan and the lower course of Yangtze River in China to overwinter. Hong Kong is actually not on their typical migratory route.
The population of Oriental Stork has been in alarming decline in the past few decades. It is estimated that only 1,000 to 2,500 individuals are left globally today. The species has been designated as “Endangered” in The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Their survival is at risk. Development pressure is one factor. For instance, many wetlands near the typical overwintering sites along the Yangtze River have been reclaimed, greatly reducing the area of their habitats.
Returning after years of disappearance
The Toyooka City of Hyogo Prefecture in Japan was once a prosperous rice farming community which attracted large flocks of Oriental Stork for overwintering every year. Unfortunately, as industrialisation and urbanisation spread, farmlands dwindled. In those that remained, chemicals and pesticides were used on a massive scale, poisoning Oriental Storks and affecting their reproductive capacity. The result was: the species vanished from the area after the 1960s.
So the Toyooka people began to reflect on the damage done to the natural environment by reckless economic development, and were determined to make a change. Farming was again encouraged and pesticide use was minimised. Today, after years of collective effort, wild Oriental Stork have been reintroduced into a welcoming sanctuary in Toyooka, and even become the city’s pride and identity. Premium rice crops cultivated in natural ways also earn a wide reputation, and create new economic value for the city.
At present, Oriental Stork is still at risk and it might be a long road to taking its name off the IUCN Red list. But the story of Toyooka tells us that conservation and economic development can go hand in hand. Conservation measures benefit wild flora and fauna, and indeed we humans as well.